It seems we’re bombarded every week with some new fitness trend, exercise gizmo, “new” workout program, or supplement guaranteed to make you a success in your workout efforts. If it’s “new” or everyone’s doing it, it must be what really works, right?
Perhaps for some. But in my opinion, success in exercise and training – like most things in life – comes down to mastering the basics.
Basic Principle #1 – Establish a schedule for your exercise program
Author James Clear says that most people never train consistently because they are always wondering when they are going to train next. Do you find yourself consistently wondering:
- “Will I be motivated to exercise when I get home from work?”
- “Will I have enough time to work out today?”
- “Will I have the willpower to wake up early and run tomorrow?”
Frankly, most people exercise either (a) once everyone else’s priorities are met, or (b) when they feel “motivated” to do so.
It boils down to this: When you stop treating exercise as something to do when it’s convenient and instead establish a schedule for yourself to follow, you will succeed.
For example, you might establish a schedule where you work out every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6pm. Put it on your calendar if you use one. Then organize your life and responsibilities around these, just as you would organize your day around classes, work meetings, your child’s soccer games, and all the other things going on in your life. Or if your schedule is really erratic, pick your workout days and times in advance for the week ahead, and put these on your calendar.
What happens here is you then don’t have to think about when you’re going to exercise, because you already know.
There will always be occasional emergencies that prevent you from working out accordingly to your planned schedule – life happens. But the beauty of having a schedule is that you can always get yourself back on track as quickly as possible.
Let your schedule govern your actions, not your level of motivation.
Basic Principle #2 – Recognize that exercise is a long-term commitment, not a quick fix
Many people exercise with a short-term goal in mind – and it’s often outcome based, instead of process based [Read: Goals: Think Process, Not Outcome]. Instead, real success comes from committing to the perspective that exercise is essential to a long, healthy and happy life. For example:
- Instead of trying to lose 40 pounds in the next 12 weeks for your upcoming class reunion – commit to regaining your health for the rest of your life.
- Instead of working out to get back into the jeans you wore 30 years ago – commit to becoming the strongest and most energetic version of you for the next 30 years.
- Instead of sacrificing everything to set a new personal record in your next race – commit to being faster next year than you are today – and even a bit faster the year after that.
If you commit to the long-term process, the results will come by themselves. It sounds amazing, but it’s true: when you commit to being consistent over the long-term, you end up seeing remarkable results in the short-term.
Basic Principle #3 – Focus on the most effective exercises
A lot of people are wasting their time in the gym. They bounce around from one exercise to another, this and that machine, without a real plan or objective. Or worse, they do the exact same exercises, with the same amount of weight, for the same number of sets and repetitions, over and over again.
There’s a simple guideline for choosing the best exercises: the more muscle groups an exercise makes you move, the bigger the benefits.
This is why I don’t recommend using weight machines, but instead using free weights or anything else that provides resistance (stretch cords, medicine balls, kettlebells, sandbags, soup cans) and requires you to be on your own two feet. [Read: The Myth of Weight Machines].
Here’s a brief list of the best exercises. These incorporate the seven basic movements the human body can perform: squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, lunging, and rotating. There are myriad of ways to perform these movements, allowing them to be tailored to your specific capabilities.
- Deadlift (hinging)
- Chest press (horizontal pushing)
- Overhead press (vertical pushing)
- Row (pulling)
- Step ups (lunging)
- Row (pulling)
- Woodchop (rotating)
Do some research online to discover ways to incorporate these movements into exercises – or better yet, work with a personal trainer to learn proper form and how to progress.
Basic Principle #4 – Build a foundation of strength first
It’s great to want to push yourself, but it’s a painful mistake to go all-out before building a foundation of strength. That’s a recipe for injury – often to the connective tissues like tendons and ligaments – which can then derail your progress. Instead, start with a weight that allows you to do 10 to 12 repetitions and still be able to do a few more if you were asked to. Complete two to three sets, resting for a minute or so in between. It should feel easy at first, and that’s what you want. You are building the foundation for greater demands later on.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has developed a scientifically proven methodology for developing a strength foundation and then building upon it. It’s called the Optimum Performance Training Model. A personal trainer who’s certified by NASM can develop a personalized program for you, following the OPT Model.
Basic Principle #5 – Progress slowly each week
There’s an old saying “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” Nowhere is this truer than with exercise. Doing the same exercises with the same amount of weight, repetitions and sets, week after week, will not produce measurable results beyond the initial ones. This is because the body adapts quickly to the demands placed on it.
If you want to see different results, you have to do something different. If you want to see progress each week, then you have to progress each week.
There’s no secret sauce involved here. Just add some more weight one week. Then increase the number of repetitions next week with this new weight. Perhaps add another set, reduce the amount of rest time between sets, or both. These are all ways of changing the stimulus and causing your body to slowly and methodically adapt by get better.
Basic Principle #6 – Keep track
In the corporate world, there’s a common philosophy that “what gets measured, gets managed.” The same is true for exercise. If you don’t track what you did, how do you know that you are getting stronger or faster?
There are dozens of low- and high-tech ways to track your progress. From a simple notebook, to a calendar/diary, to nifty phone apps and web-based training logs (my personal favorite, and one I recommend to all my clients, is Final Surge. It’s totally free and beautifully designed).
Record your workouts right after you finish them. It only takes a minute or so.
The beauty of recording your training is that it brings together all the other Basic Principles:
- It shows how well you kept to your schedule
- It illustrates your long-term progress
- It shows which exercises you performed so you can evaluate whether or not they’re effective for you
- It allows you to track your progression, building up volume and weight slowly each week.
Health and wellness is a lifetime journey, not a one-and-done task. If you keep focused on these six basic principles, you’ll achieve results and build permanent lifestyle changes that will help you feel better, move better, and live better for a lifetime.
Laurie Kelly, CPT, CES, is a Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist accredited by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, she specializes in helping women in mid-life and beyond to become stronger, fitter, and lead healthy and active lives. Contact her here or follow her blog at www.dragonfly-fitness.com.